Wind power: the silent majority must speak out, says Miliband
To tackle climate change we must end public apathy – and widen our leaders’ focus beyond their pet policies.
It started badly. His spin doctor tried to get the organisers to take down the polite banners people were holding in support of the workers at the Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight. I asked her why she wanted them removed. She replied that it was a public meeting, not a protest. Why couldn’t it be both?
“It’s just my opinion; I don’t like them.”
The banners stayed up.
Though I didn’t agree with everything he said, and though he’s no orator, Miliband was good. He never tried to duck a question. He listened, answered directly, never insulted the intelligence of the audience: he appeared, in other words, to be the opposite of a New Labour politician. If the government were composed of people like him and Hilary Benn, I would vote Labour again. But what poor company they keep!
He began by responding to one of the Vestas workers (there were several in the hall). He said that he had asked Vestas whether its decision to move its plant to the US “was about money. They said no. Would [government] money make a difference? No.” It was about the credit crunch and the planning system. He was trying to address both problems: by putting £1bn into wind developments and by changing the planning laws.
“But the biggest thing we can do for people like David [the Vestas worker] and his colleagues is to change people’s minds about onshore wind. … There’s a big, big persuasion job we’ll have to do on people: that the biggest threat to the countryside is not the wind turbines; it’s climate change. … The truth is that a vocal minority has stopped them going ahead and the silent majority has not done enough to ensure they go ahead. We’re doing all the government can do, I hope people will also do their bit.” (Well we tried, but his spin doctor wanted us to take down the banners.)
This was his major theme. He ended his talk by saying “We don’t have enough of a global campaign around Copenhagen [climate talks this December] at the moment. I hope you will take part in it.” It’s not the first time that Miliband has pressed people to give the government a harder time, and he’s right: we can’t sit on our butts and expect polticians to do more than the public is demanding.
His responses to the questions were interesting, though they betrayed the strangely narrow view that cabinet ministers – so focused on the complexities of immediate policy – now seem obliged to possess. He was asked, for example, about how the UK will implement the findings of IAASTD‘s report that relate to global warming. This is the vast global assessment of agricultural science which was overseen by a British civil servant and published last year. It was roughly the equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s assessment reports: it is one of the most important environmental documents ever published. But Miliband had no idea what she was talking about. Agriculture belongs to another department, so even though it’s responsible for a substantial portion of our greenhouse gases, he doesn’t have to know anything about it.
There was a similar gap when I asked him about the stonking contradiction at the heart of his new, low-carbon transition paper. There’s plenty of good in it, and for the first time it provides a clear road map for achieving the government’s inadequate targets for cutting emissions. But while it spells out the means by which we might minimise our consumption of fossil fuels, it also demands that we maximise their production. This is what it says:
“The government’s approach is to maximise the economic exploitation of the UK’s own oil reserves, to work with other countries to ensure a well-functioning global oil market, and to improve UK fuel infrastructure.”
“[We will] maximise the economic production of oil and gas from the North Sea”.
The government has the same policy for coal. The 2007 Energy White paper says that it intends to “maximise economic recovery of the oil and gas from the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) and from remaining coal reserves.” (page 107).
He appeared to be unaware of the coal policy, denying it while I was asking the question. Has the policy changed? If so, when was this announced? And why are opencast coal mines still being given planning permission? Or could his civil servants have shielded him so effectively from the government’s dodgier energy policies that he has never been exposed to this contradiction before?
In any case, he decided to concentrate on gas.
“The less we produce from the North Sea, the more we will import. Gas is a transition technology and it’s a long transition. I agree that we have to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, but it is a transition and gas is part of the transition.”
Maximising production doesn’t look like weaning ourselves off it; nor does his explanation make sense of the government’s policy on coal and oil. This is one I won’t drop.
I agreed with what he said about population, however.
“There’s no question that population growth is part of the reason why we have growth in carbon emissions… but I’m not sure that there’s an easy or necessarily desirable solution once you’ve stated that fact.”
Here’s what he said in response to a question about flying:
“Domestic flights have got to become more expensive. There are perverse incentives. We have argued strongly for aviation to be included in the European Emissions Trading Scheme. Personally I think aviation is undertaxed. We are the only country in the world to have said we will keep carbon levels from aviation to current levels by 2050. But here’s a difficult thing about aviation: we have an 80% reduction target. If we cut aviation emissions by that by 2050, we’d go back to 1974 levels of flying. But the world is getting closer together, not further apartt… we will have to do a lot more in other areas if we’re going to carry on flying.”
What this means of course is that we’ll have to make cuts of greater than 80% in emissions from heating, electricity, other forms of transport and farming in order to accommodate current levels of flying. Where’s the vision here? Why can’t the government announce a study, for example, on how it might best phase out business flights, replacing them with enhanced video conferencing and all the other brilliant virtual technologies we now enjoy?
The other thing that struck me about the meeting was the great enthusiasm for wind farms. The Vestas people were cheered to the rafters, and even the government’s draconian new planning laws were popular. On this issue Miliband is right: the surveys show that there really is a silent majority in favour of onshore wind, but we’ve failed to mobilise in its defence.